More than 30 years ago I had a conversation in a bar in Truckee, Calif., that, unlike many conversations of the day and all but a few bar conversations of any time, has stayed in mind. I was having a beer or so with an old high school friend, Ron, who had known hard times and personal tragedy and had become an accomplished, decent and thoughtful man. I liked and admired Ron and respected his opinions, even when we disagreed.
Our conversation that evening revolved around the criticism I had expressed (in conversation) to a mutual and good friend about that friend's recent decision to alter his career path in a direction I thought was wrong for both him and his profession. The specific criticism and my opinion about the right or wrong of my friend's decision are another story. What stayed in mind so indelibly was Ron's reaction to it and his arguments for that reaction. He viewed my criticism as disloyalty to a friend, and he was vehement and disturbed by it. The issues at stake were secondary according to his view in which loyalty trumps content in one's obligations to the world. In his mind criticism of a friend is disloyalty to the friendship. This perspective has ramifications that go far beyond the parameters of personal friendships, and, in my opinion, is rooted in fear of the world, not love for it.
I, obviously, viewed my criticism as a duty of friendship. I thought (and think) that if one sees something going amiss or someone one cares about making a mistake, being careless or mindless, or heading in a wrong direction, one is obliged to engage in conversation and openly discuss the content, truth, consequences and real intentions of the issue. If criticisms and concerns are misplaced it will come out in conversation. That's one of the purposes of conversation, on a personal, local, national and international level. No one has it right all of the time, but everyone has part of it right some of the time.
Man is a tribal beast and loyalty to the tribe—be it family (extended or not), friends, profession, political party, religious affiliation, lifestyle, city, county, state, nation or species—is a tool of survival. The larger the tribe to which one perceives one belongs (i.e. a family of two or three, a particular religion, a nation, the species Homo sapiens, all life on earth, etc.), the more complex and refined is one's loyalty. Like any tool, loyalty needs maintenance the way a well made knife needs sharpening before use and protection when not in use. Conversation, including honest criticism, is mind maintenance. Lack of conversation jams the mind into a faith-based ostrich position in rocky soil, severely dulling the tool.
For Ron, loyalty demanded unquestioned (and unquestioning) support, without argument. Even without pointing out the obvious contradiction involved in his criticizing my criticism, I've thought much about and long disagreed with Ron's perspective. It would be derelict and disloyal not to. Our conversation all those years ago stayed in mind because it alerted me to a dangerous dynamic in human affairs, one that seeks foundation and justification in the easy and eternal illusion of certainty. The strength and vitality of the tribe is only as sustainable as the collective thoughts, insights, opinions and experiences of its members, honestly expressed and fearlessly discussed. When loyalty, patriotism, even membership in the tribe requires silence, suppression of criticism and limited conversation or none at all, that tribe will sooner or later come undone. The obsequious bow to power and the trained salute to authority turn decent people into zealots and are the fuel of fascism and the tune of tyranny. Its epigraph was most recently and most famously summed up in the no question, no criticism, and no conversation endgame phrase, "You're either with us or you're against us."
End of conversation.
End of thought.
End of inquiry.
End of openness.
End of learning.
End of the world.
But man is a tribal beast and as such he is a conversationalist. Though it is not always readily apparent, sooner or later man will choose conversation, even critical conversation, over silent conformity. It's man's nature. Democracy's too.
Since Sept. 11, 2001, conversation in America has been stunted and grotesque and not very deep in many areas of inquiry. However, the conversation in the American tribe has been picking up, growing, standing straight, looking good and going deep in recent months, and none too soon.
Bring it on.